With their boogieman gone, our 20-somethings have a chance to move on
The first I heard was a text message from my son. Then another text message from my other son. Simple words. Osama bin Laden is dead. In the morning, while I scoured the newspaper, young people were posting their reactions on Facebook. Some were celebratory, others somber, most were somewhere in between.
Most poignant of all were the comments from my 22-year-old niece, an aspiring diplomat and a very bright, sensitive young woman. She happened to be in Vietnam, paying a visit to what is called the Museum of American Aggression in Ho Chi Minh City. She got the news—how else?—on her phone.
In a place commemorating a defining event for her parents’ generation, the Vietnam War, she learned of the demise of the man who had burned a hole in her hometown, killed a cousin, caused the people she loved most to break down in sobs, and scattered friends to war. Back in 2001 she had watched her father, a volunteer ambulance tech, suit up each day and go to his post to await survivors, then return home to report that they had treated no one. Her middle school class, the career choices of friends, even the names of the streets she walks are defined by the mass murder carried out that late summer day. And now the killer was dead.
How to absorb all of this? Post it on Facebook, of course: “Really overwhelmed being at a War of American Aggression museum in Vietnam when the news about Osama bin Laden came through.”
As the days went on, this thought about what bin Laden’s death meant for young people kept coming back to me: The monster hiding under the bed through all of those formative years was finally gone. Irony was no match for that.
As Monday, May 2, dawned and the story spun out, the reactions of young people continued to pour in. A nephew living in the heartland was less inclined toward contemplation, and joined in with the chants of USA-USA-USA that many of us saw on the television. One friend posted a request for Osama bin Laden dolls so he could barbecue them. That elicited a post vowing to burn anyone who manufactured such dolls.
If you watched the revelry after President Barack Obama’s announcement that bin Laden was gone, you couldn’t help but notice the youth of the revelers. Their generation watched the horror of Sept. 11 with one eye on the television and another on their parents, searching for reassurance that everything was going to be OK. For some, they didn’t get the sense, until this week, that the grownups could take care of things.
Instead they grew up with the heightened anxiety of friends being bundled off to war, of fences and barriers erected, of debates about their homeland becoming a place that they could no longer recognize.
In the interim they got Facebook and Twitter, which means they will never be like their parents, waiting and staring at a screen for answers. They will be texting and tweeting and demanding a response.
Those of us whose defining memories include a motorcade in Dallas, or a radio transmission from Pearl Harbor, were in grownup mode on Sept. 11, 2001, trying to reassure the kids that it was going to be all right. We were not very convincing, nor could we be, while Osama was still alive.
Talk all you want about his declining relevance, about decentralizing al-Qaeda, about his lieutenants—it didn’t matter. His was the face of a generation’s fear; his will and evil vision effectively ended childhood for many, and only this raid, it seems, has put fear in its proper place. In its wake they turn not to their elders for validation or reassurance, but to the interactive realm of cyberspace, where expression is its own reward and justification, where bonds appear and disappear with the latest feed.
The younger generation in the Middle East took heroic action this spring to demonstrate that the narrow vision of Osama bin Laden no longer has any hold on their imagination. In the reaction to his death, our own youth have in their own way declared their freedom from the shadow of fear he embodied.
After sleeping on it for a night in Ho Chi Minh City, the young woman posts an image and a toast. The image is of a mug of beer on a table in a tavern, and with it she offers this: “true that we should not get carried away in celebration, but i feel it is necessary to commemorate this moment. a toast to my home, new york city, who awaited this day perhaps more than anyone, with love from Vietnam.”